Past mistakes, present-day decisions

by Carmel Cacopardo

published on Saturday June 12, 2010

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“Our environment is too small to afford to suffer any more mistakes than we have already committed in the past, sometimes even in the name of tourism and progress.” This was not stated by AD chairman Michael Briguglio but by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco with reference to the pending Ħondoq ir-Rummien Mepa application (The Sunday Times, May 30).

In considering large projects for development permission, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority is not considering environmental and social impacts adequately, opting instead to focus on perceived short-term economic gains. Unfortunately, the paths leading to decisions are guided by experts who should know better.

Some time ago, Mepa approved the extension of the Malta Freeport. In the process, it ignored that such an extension gobbled up the existing buffer zone established way back in 1995. The end result will be a Freeport operating area that is much closer to the Birżebbuġa residential area. The Freeport as it is operating already severely impacts the daily lives of the Birżebbuġa residents. Making things worse will only raise tensions and the loss of at least part of the accumulated social capital of the locality. No amount of mitigation will ever restore what is being lost with Mepa’s blessings.

In deciding on the matter, Mepa has been misguided by an EIA process, which, being financed by the developer, had an interest to shift attention on the over-emphasised perceived economic gains, simultaneously downplaying social and environmental impacts.

The Ħondoq ir-Rummien project seems to be the next issue which further highlights the developing tensions between the residential community and those interested in making a fast buck. The proposal, which involves substantial rock excavation, aims to develop a 170-room hotel, 25 villas, 60 self-catering apartments, 200 residences, parking space and a 150-berth yacht marina.

This proposed development will squeeze out the current uses at Ħondoq ir-Rummien. It will conflict with the public recreational uses the Gozitans and Maltese alike make of the area.

Jeremy Boissevain, in a report commissioned by the Qala local council, has highlighted that the massive scale of the project will practically double the Qala population. The local community has not accepted the proposed intrusion into their lives, which the proposed project suggests. As evidenced by the local referendum held in Qala some years back, the community does not consider the economic aspect on its own. Rather, it should be weighed and compared to the environmental and social impacts it will necessarily generate.

The social and environmental externalities of the project are being repeatedly downplayed by those who want to cash in on the economic benefits such a project will undoubtedly generate for the few. After having cashed in the benefits of property speculation aimed at a 70 per cent foreigner occupancy target, they will then leave the community to carry the burdens and pay the costs, deprived of basic facilities which, to date, have been much used by the public.

Mepa has yet to decide on this project and there is no way of knowing the direction such a decision would take. It is however logical to assume that the line of reasoning the current Mepa board has applied in other cases is of relevance. Hence, the validity of Dr de Marco’s warning on the need to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated, not even on behalf of  “tourism and progress”.

The government is aware that, to date, it has given conflicting signals. Very late in the day, it is realising that it cannot run with the proverbial hares while simultaneously hunting with the hounds. The current state of affairs is the direct result of the ambivalent attitude to environmental issues by politicians from the major parties which have developed the skill of quickly switching mode depending on their audience.

The causes are various.

AD is on record as pointing to two immediate solutions: firstly regulating the funding of political parties and, secondly, for the government to share with the community the process of appointing the Mepa decision-makers, by having the appointees subjected to a public hearing prior to their being appointed.

The major political parties are hostage to the construction industry. This is also evident by the reluctance of Parliament to legislate on party political funding. The parliamentary select committee appointed two years ago has, to date, been ineffective in this respect. Likewise, the Mepa reform process will result in a wasted opportunity, as while it will tinker with a number of issues, it will retain the most essential matters requiring reform untouched.

It is one thing to speak on past mistakes and quite another to move up the learning curve. Past mistakes will most probably be reflected in present-day decisions. At least for the time being.

I hope that I will be proven wrong.

original at Times of Malta website

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Overdevelopment of the Tigné peninsula

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by Carmel Cacopardo

published on April 10, 2010

The publication of the State of the Environment Report (SoER) for 2008 is an opportunity to take stock of the manner in which environmental responsibilities are being shouldered or neglected. One point the SoER fails to inform about is the link between overdevelopment and a negative social and environmental impact on the community.

Tigné peninsula in Sliema is a suitable example.

Two of the mega-projects in Tigné, namely the Midi and Fort Cambridge projects, have government fingerprints. The social and environmental impacts on the Sliema community more than outweigh the economic benefits derived. Yet, they have been given the go-ahead. While these two mega-projects were approved by Mepa, a third (Townsquare) is being processed. Other projects of various sizes and impacts have been approved or are in the pipeline both in Tigné and in other parts of Sliema.

Focusing on the macro-scale, three main issues need to be addressed: vacant dwellings, traffic generation and the quality of air.

In my opinion, given the large number of vacant dwellings, further large-scale development is not required. About 54,000 vacant dwellings were identified during the 2005 census and this number has been on the increase ever since.

Newly-constructed dwellings may or will be occupied but they are still the cause of a disintegration of the existing urban fabric in various localities as a result of an internal migration away from existing settlements.

Some areas are being depopulated, awaiting their turn to be demolished and redeveloped after someone makes a quick buck. The few remaining tenants are then squeezed out by “developers”. Some years back, an old lady at The Strand, Sliema, was faced with buildings being demolished all around (and above) her home in order to persuade her to move out.

This is resulting not just in urban decay but also in the forfeiture of an accumulated social capital.

This is not surprising in a society that only appreciates financial capital. Unfortunately, public authorities are on the same wavelength.

The 710 vehicles on the road per 1,000 population (2008 figures) is substantial. In a small country, rather than being a sign of affluence, this vehicle per capita ratio is the clearest indicator of the failure of public policy to address issues of sustainable mobility over the years. Past governments have been ineffective in this respect. The large number of dwellings being constructed at Tigné peninsula begs the question as to where the substantial additional traffic generated is to be accommodated. I am referring to both the traffic directed at the new residences and that directed towards the new commercial outlets. Roads in Malta are already bursting at the seams.

When Mepa is approving more intensive development through the construction of high-rise buildings, it is not giving sufficient weight to these impacts. In particular, it is ignoring the cumulative effects of so large a number of developments in so restricted a space.

A Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) of the local plans and planning policies would have pinpointed these shortcomings had it been carried out. Yet, the government tried to wriggle out of its responsibilities by clinging to a loophole, which exempted it from applying the SEA to policies on land-use planning. This has been done by a government that boasts about the central importance of the environment in its electoral platform. Yet, when push comes to shove, it wriggles out of its commitments.

Quality of air data is only made available relative to 2006 and 2007 in the SoER indicators.

Limiting my comments to the 2007 data relative to the Msida station, the available SoER indicators clearly show that PM10 measurements exceeded the EU limits on 24 per cent of the days measured and were very close to the permissible limit of 50μg/m3 with respect to the rest.

PM10 measures particulate matter, having a diameter not exceeding 10 microns. The primary source of such particulate matter, as is also emphasised by the SoER indicators, is fuel combustion from traffic and power generation. It is therefore clear that heavy traffic increases the incidence of PM10 with the consequent risks of a greater incidence of respiratory diseases. Studies carried out in Fgura and Żejtun in the 1990s point in this direction too.

These are the risks posed by an increase in traffic in an area such as Sliema, which is already heavily congested.

The issue of development has so far been considered within the framework of the rights of the owners of the property to be developed. It is about time that the rights of the community are factored in as, to date, they are not being given sufficient weight. In particular, the cumulative impacts of development are being ignored. This is applicable not just to Sliema but to all Maltese territory.

The net result is a quality of life which could be much better.